starring Marisa Tomei, Vincent D'Onofrio, Nadia Dajani, Holland Taylor
written and directed by Brad Anderson
by Walter Chaw Too long by at least the length of an unwelcome framing device and an expert but superfluous performance by Holland Taylor as a therapist, Brad Anderson's Happy Accidents is invested in the 16th-century ideal that Love is the abeyance of Entropy, in the idea that true romantic bliss is the key to staving off chaos in a world eternally falling into it. The phenomena of time flying when one's having fun is spoken of early in the film as a scientific verity rather than as a cozy homily, and Happy Accidents is likewise best defined as a familiar love story stretched to justify old Heinlein and Wells pulp. A series of still photograph interludes recalling Chris Marker's La Jetée are handled with skill and a surprising poignancy but give too much away as to the ultimate resolution of the film to those familiar with the experimental French short.
Ruby (Marisa Tomei) is a frazzled co-dependent "fixer" who bounces from one emotional charity case to the next, building her lines of defense around her tough psychiatrist (Taylor) and a solemn daily affirmation: "I will learn to balance my needs with my concern for others. I'm learning to love myself more every day." Ruby's mantric promise to herself is tested when she falls in love with unbalanced oaf Sam Deed (Vincent D'Onofrio) before finding out that Sam believes that he is from 2470, "back travelled" all the way to the turn of this century to save Ruby from her accidental death. Says terminally lovelorn Ruby to her man-weary friend Gretchen (Nadia Dajani), "That's the most romantic lie any man has ever told me." Sam is the twitching Romeo to Ruby's tear-stained Juliet, and their fair Verona is the fourth dimension. Happy Accidents is a hopelessly romantic cross between the acerbic bitchiness of "Sex and the City" and the "oh gosh" sci-fi cornpone of "Quantum Leap". It's a high-concept/old-concept conceit that works about the way you might expect such an offspring to work: not very often, though pleasantly when it does.
There aren't a great many actresses who can pull off "brittle New York neurotic" with the degree of wounded intelligence and sensitivity required to make the character bearable--and Tomei is one of them. There are also very few actors who can pull off "clearly demented and possibly dangerous" with a surplus of innocence and charm, and D'Onofrio (who has already done it once in The Whole Wide World) is one of them. That the two never quite seem to inhabit the same film with the same kind of intensity at the same time is an effect that might serve the tale but in any case injures the romance--they're accomplished in the art of the thousand-yard-stare; not so convincing are they in describing the arc of a torrid love affair.
At the end of the day, Happy Accidents is just a more gimmicky version of Anderson's own over-lauded Next Stop Wonderland, complete with the same verging-on-uncomfortably paternalistic attitude towards their voluble female protagonists. Happy Accidents is buoyed immeasurably by its game and able leads yet feels desperate and contrived just when it should feel giddy and artless. Not even a winking cameo by Brat-packer Anthony Michael Hall as himself infatuated with his own celebrity can break Happy Accidents out from under the burden of its own ambition nor shake it free from its self-conscious denials of the same. Originally published: October 5, 2001.